The much-heralded "Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti" along with ten other watercolors of the "Dreyfus Cane" by Ben Shahu have arrived at the galleries of the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art and will remain on display until October 29.
It is not difficult to see why this series, the modern counterpart of the great religious frescoes of the Renaissance, has caused such an upheaval in the Impressionist schools. The realm of art was as much disturbed by the trial of the fishmonger and the poor shoemaker as the political situation of the decade.
The most prominent idea that the exhibition conveys to the spectator is that Shahn has severed his connection with those schools of painting which emphasized the technique of the artist's presentation at the expense of subordinating the subject.
More through the whole series of the twenty three gouaches than through any one picture, the artist carries his idea, but in every face there is the same stifled look as if life had killed all emotion, and left, in place of a living countenance, a strained placid mask. All the portraiture is reminiscent of O'Neill's device in "The Great God Brown."
Shahn's method is simplicity itself. In all scenes he uses a wash and fine ink lines. The backgrounds are almost uniformly a depressing blue. Seldom has any modern painter so eloquently depicted his subjects with such an economy of line. Every delineation is expressive, every curve is significant. There is something stark, some terrible frozen fear in every face. Shahn's creations seem to be cowering under some upraised fist.
The portraits of the six witnesses who bought eels from Vanzetti on December 24, and the three eminent men who formed the Lowell Committee, are all executed in the same monotone. Only in the lupine eye of Vanzetti, and the good natured face of Governor Fuller does the artist reveal Life triumphant over Obsession. Such phases as the family of the condemned man as they were in Italy, and after the verdict had been pronounced heighten the scientific interest.
After the emotional severity in the "passion" group, the second gallery, that devoted to the Dreyfus case, is relieving. The color is livelier, the faces are illuminated with genuine human feeling; the smiling rascality and the jovial bonhommie of the French shines through the haggard mask of the flesh. Dreyfus is not burdened with the martyrdom so often found in literature, and the sketches of the principals in the trial have a delightful vivacity. The impression of Zola is of somewhat alarming proportions, but thoroughly healthy. The spectator is given the idea that either Shahn did the work in this gallery when he was under different influences, or that the subject is so far removed from his own age that he can treat it in a more detached and sprightly vein.
Although almost all of the pictures depicting the Sacco-Vanzetti affair merge on caricature, there is more of art than mere clever distortion in these gouaches. When the exhibit appeared at the Downtown Gallery in New York City, many were inclined to dismiss the whole of Shahn's work as comic-strip treatment of more serious topics, yet even the poignancy that speaks from each picture is testimony that there is something more permanent than grim humor here.
In the field of painting Shahn has left something comparable to Upton Sinclair's novel, and Felix Frankfurter's scholarly exposition of what promises to be the major criminal case of the century.